National Coming Out Day is beautiful because it allows people to speak their truth and celebrate their identity. As I was struck by two deeply affecting and gorgeously written books, Ziggy, Stardust, and Me by James Brandon and The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper, I wanted to showcase these authors in conversation on a day that celebrates identity and allows for others to proudly share who they are. I’m so grateful to both authors for joining me in conversation and I hope that you’ll be sure to check out these deeply moving and wonderful reads.
Both novels are so poignant for different reasons and I can imagine that writing them must have been difficult in some ways. How were you able to navigate that and take a step back while writing?
Phil Stamper: I actually didn’t leave myself much time to step back until this story was fully drafted. I first wrote The Gravity of Us during the 2016 election in the U.S., and I knew so many people (especially queer teens) who just felt hopeless. From the very beginning, my hope was to have a main character who proves that even if you screw up from time to time, anyone can change the world. I hope that anyone who reads the book takes with them the fact they can make a change and, when they use their voice, people will listen. It’s taken me a long time to hone this message. So yes, it’s not always been easy, but I’m happy that I was able to navigate this in the end.
James Brandon: So beautifully said, Phil. I love this theme found in most Queer YA: by embracing that which makes you “different,” you’re able to create the “change you wish to see in the world.” For my part, although Ziggy had been percolating in my soul for the better part of a decade, and after years of researching, outlining and finally writing my “zero draft,” I didn’t actually sit down to write the first draft until 2016, and I swear on Ziggy Stardust the first words I typed were on the day David Bowie died. I cried as the words barreled out onto the screen. Hard. And as the year progressed, along with subsequent revisions and drafts, my activist voice began screaming through the story. I think if you allow yourself to let go and fully feel into each moment, it creates for a more authentic experience on the page. And especially when you’re passionate about a certain topic—which you most certainly should be before starting to write a novel—your emotions are that much more fully present.
It’s not always easy to step back and separate yourself from your work, but it’s imperative to keep your mental health in check. In probably my most queer reference to date, Meryl Streep once said she leaves the drama for the stage to keep her personal life mentally balanced. I replace “page” with “stage,” and try to do just that. Once I’ve finished writing a “tougher” scene, I save it, close my computer, and do something that has nothing to do with the book: go for a walk, bake cookies, anything to release the feelings I’d drummed up while writing that scene.
Phil, just curious: what does self-care look like for you while writing?
Phil Stamper: Oh, I love the idea of leaving drama “for the page” to have that separation. For me, self-care while writing takes the form of not being too harsh on myself when I’m not as productive as I’d like. Some days I can write 8,000 words, but most days I can write zero, and I always used to shame myself for having an inconsistent writing process. Also, forcing myself to stay off the internet when I need to “reset” helps a lot, and it’s probably the best self-care routine any of us can adopt.
Brandon, your book is out but Phil Stamper’s book won’t be released until February 2020, do you have any advice for this debut author?
Phil Stamper: Yes, please help me Brandon, I’m very tired.
James Brandon: Ha. Rest up, dear Phil, you’ve only just begun…
I’m by no means a pro at this since Ziggy’s only two months old, but the past six months have definitely been a whirlwind of activity as the book was ushered into the world. Honestly, the best piece of advice I could give to a debut author, or anyone really, is to savor every moment; they are all so fleeting and full. My goal in this entire debut process was to stay present, to not worry or fret about what’s coming, what people think, what people write or say, but to live as present as possible. Admittedly, it wasn’t easy at times, but with presence, you’re that much more energized, relaxed, and aware. And from this space, you’re not only able to be there for others, you’re first and foremost being there for yourself.
Honestly, Phil, I’ve learned a lot from you and your marketing prowess over the course of this journey, and it helped me navigate the business side of this journey with much more confidence. What’s the best marketing advice you’d share with writers?
Phil Stamper: Thank you so much! There’s a lot of pressure to be on every social media platform, to say all the right things, to create the coolest swag, have the coolest designed website, etc. Being a debut is terrifying, and I always think that if I’m not doing everything, I’m doing nothing. But it’s so important to try and stay out of that trap.
The best marketing advice I have is to focus on a few things you can do well, and set clear boundaries on the rest. Have a website (no need for a fancy one) with links to a media kit and up-to-date info about you and your books. Use social media in whatever way works for you—don’t force it. And finally, make sure you work with your publishing team whenever possible, and don’t be afraid to ask questions along the way!
Brandon, since your book takes place in 1973, I imagine that might have done a little bit of research. What did that process look like? Phil, did you do any research for your contemporary novel?
Phil Stamper: The interesting piece here is that, while The Gravity of Us is a present-day story, it’s set in a contemporary reimagining of the space race of the 60s and 70s. So there’s actually a lot of similar research that went into this—I was creating an environment where we’re technologically advanced enough to fly a human mission to Mars, sure, but I also wanted to look to this era for inspiration.
I did that through old LIFE Magazines, memoirs from the mission, and a whole lot of documentaries over the years. I think LIFE was shuttered in 1972, though, so this might not have made the cut for Brandon.
Brandon, a question for you: Did you find many parallels between the 70s and now while researching and writing this story?
James Brandon: Phil makes an excellent point that although you may not be writing Historical Fiction, research on any topic you’re exploring is a key ingredient to unlocking the mysteries of your narrative. Those who know me know I’ve always proudly deemed myself a “Research Geek.” I love deep-diving down a rabbit hole of research, scouring through books at the library, interviewing people familiar with (or who’ve personally experienced) the topic I’m writing on. I did this for any character I ever portrayed as an actor, and similarly, it was the most essential part in authentically writing Ziggy.
Once I knew my setting would be the Summer of 1973, I immersed myself in that time for over a year: I listened to the music, watched movies and TV shows, read magazines and books, and kept notebooks full of random early-seventies details and factoids to filter into the narrative. And besides interviewing LGBTQ+ people who endured the “treatments” my protagonist experiences in the narrative, I also spent weeks at the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society sifting through their archives: from flipping through scrapbooks of personal photos to reading love letters written from one secret lover to another, this visceral research allowed me a sense of connection, a rootedness in my queer community that I’d never felt before.
And to answer your question, Phil: Yes. In fact, the parallels between 1973 and the news of today are freakishly frightening: Every faction of marginalized society was fighting for their voices to be heard, Roe v. Wade had just passed, Watergate was a daily news story and President Nixon was facing impeachment. (Yup.) They say “history repeats itself.” Not only is that true in this case, but it made it that much easier to infuse my feelings of today’s events with the past.
What has been the most rewarding experience of writing your story?
Phil Stamper: Well, packing all my obsessions into one story was extremely rewarding. (Gays? Check. Space flight? Check. Other nerdery? Double check.) But there was also a ton of value in building in a queer romance that, even amidst the drama around them, deals with some heavier issues real teens face every day. One thing that’s resonated with readers is how my main character Cal navigates the mental health experiences of those close to him—his mom’s anxiety, his boyfriend’s depression—while learning how to be with them in the way they need it. I put a lot of my own experiences into that, so seeing it being received like this has been amazing.
James Brandon: I agree with Phil. The old adage “write what you know” comes to mind. I wrote a book I wish I had growing up. I knew nothing about my queer history; I was never taught a single thing in my Social Studies classes about the countless gifts LGBTQ+ peoples have given to humanity since the beginning of time; and for this reason I felt even more lost in the sea of questions I was drowning in during my middle and high school years.
Teaching Queer History is currently required in only four US States, yet studies have proven when you see yourself represented in literature and history books, an innate sense of belonging is developed. Especially at a time when you’re questioning so many facets of your being, it’s critical to instill this deep-rooted connection to your ancestry and to your self. So, being able to write a queer historical for this reason alone, and to document a pivotal, yet often forgotten, moment that helped birth our modern-day LGBTQ+ movement has been incredibly rewarding.
What advice do you have for writers who are writing either emotionally charged or in Phil’s case, lighter stories?
Phil Stamper: LGBTQ YA is out there now—in every genre, for every person. (Though, when it comes to representation, there’s certainly room for growth with more intersectional queer YA.) When writing The Gravity of Us, I wanted to present this story without homophobia, and also without many hang ups on identity—kind of like how Dan Levy explains the lack of homophobia in Schitt’s Creek. Of course, this isn’t everyone’s experience—it certainly wasn’t mine!—but it was important for me to write this particular love story this way. So, my advice would be to write a story that’s authentic to you. Don’t pay attention to trends, or manuscript wish lists. Pay attention to what resonates with you. Presenting your story authentically is always going to make it stand out more than if you tried to make it fit into a box.
Brandon, though there’s of course joy and heart throughout your story, there are some heavy moments too. Do you have any advice for writers about navigating those tough moments?
James Brandon: I love, love, love what Phil has to say here. Queer representation in books has come soooo far since I was in high school. (And he also rightly mentions the next important steps to take in the industry.) Recently I met a reader who was excited to read my book because it dealt with “tougher queer topics” and all she’d read were “happy queer books.” I was stunned. At her age I only knew the opposite, so that shows the important strides we’ve made in queer rep.
It’s incredibly vital to reflect the wide variety of stories our LGBTQ+ fabric threads together. This includes beautiful stories like Phil’s where identifying on the LGBTQ+ spectrum isn’t an issue, as well as “coming out” stories that deep-dive into the layers of homophobia, both self-imposed and from society. Although we’ve made some incredible progress over the years, coming out is still a frightening prospect for many young people, if not impossible in some cases. Today we celebrate National Coming Out Day, and until the day comes when “coming out” is no longer something we have to contend with, these stories must continue to be included in our libraries to hopefully create a safe space for those who have no choice but to live in hiding.
When writing these stories, as mentioned above, it’s important to separate your identity from your work. Immerse yourself emotionally on the page, but always leave room at the end of the day to cut ties with the work and keep your mental health a priority. Your well-being is more important than anything you could ever write.
Was there an LGBTQ+ Book that you read that inspired you in your writing?
Phil Stamper: Oh, yes, there were plenty of queer stories that inspired my writing. I think Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli is probably a given—it was the first time I’d really read a happy queer story, and it initially inspired me to write my own. Along the way, I was inspired by Running with Lions by Julian Winters, Odd One Out by Nic Stone, You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, and Death Prefers Blondes by Caleb Roehrig… among many, many others that have come out in the years since!
James Brandon: Omg, every LGBTQ+ book I’ve read has inspired me. Phil has already listed an excellent selection of novels I also highly recommend. And I’d add Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, which totally swept me off my feet and is my classic go-to queer book. Of course Adam Silvera’s debut More Happy Than Not did the same thing for me. Bill Konigsberg has a charm, wit, and depth to his storytelling that I greatly admire and love, and I recommend any book by him. And three of my most favorite recent YA queer reads are Like A Love Story by Abdi Nazemian, The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante, and Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. Although these books didn’t inspire me in my writing (since they all pubbed after I’d written Ziggy), they have inspired me to keep writing and better myself as a writer.Now I’m waiting for an ARC of The Gravity of Us…AHEM…
Phil Stamper: Yes! Like A Love Story was one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time. And I’m actually reading The Grief Keeper right now and I’m in LOVE. Pet, of course, is near the top of my TBR too. So many great, inspiring books out there right now! (And sorry Brandon!!! Let me just see if Bloomsbury has any extras on hand!)
Phil Stamper grew up in a rural village near Dayton, Ohio. He has a B.A. in Music and an M.A. in Publishing with Creative Writing. And, unsurprisingly, a lot of student debt. He works for a major book publisher in New York City and lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their dog. His debut YA novel THE GRAVITY OF US will be out winter 2020 from Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
James Brandon produced and played the central role of Joshua in the international tour of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi for a decade, and is codirector of the documentary film based on their journey, Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption. He’s the cofounder of the I AM Love Campaign, an arts-based initiative bridging the faith-based and LGBTQ2+ communities, and serves on the Powwow Steering Committee for Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) in San Francisco. Brandon is a contributing writer for Huffington Post, Believe Out Loud, and Spirituality and Health Magazine. Ziggy, Stardust and Me is his first novel.
You can visit James Brandon at justbejb.com